A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the Star Wars Trilogy. These movies represent a transition in Hollywood, the first real blockbuster movies made, that altered the way Hollywood approached and made films. They heightened the expectations of moviegoers, and forever changed the “Star Wars generation”, building a love of this story and a passion about film that has yet to be rivaled. For the nostalgia that people feel towards Star Wars, there is no comparison, which is why there was such an uproar when creator George Lucas decided to alter his films for the 1997 “Special Editions”, and again for this first release on DVD.
The story of Star Wars is easy to connect with because it’s built from common archetypes we can all relate with. You have the unlikely hero in the innocent farm boy, drawn into a galactic war. With him is the scoundrel, a character equally as heroic, but who hides it beneath his sarcastic demeanor and who isn’t afraid to use his more worldly experience and resort to less then heroic measures if necessary. The hero is mentored by a wizened wizard type (actually two throughout Star Wars’s story). You have the fair princess, although here she is only a maiden in distress in one of the three stories. And, of course, you have the comedic relief, here in the form of two droids. None of these figures would be anything without a villain to oppose them, and Darth Vader is the defining figure of a villain. The story itself is as equally simple: the plight of a rebellion as it attempts to defeat an evil empire, and the story of the heroes who rise to lead in that effort.
But, despite its simplicity both in story and characters, there’s something magical about Star Wars that’s hard to finger. It can’t simply be attributed to the bond that forms between friends, or the sage wisdom of a puppet, or even the special effects - unlike anything we’d seen before, and quite frankly have yet to really be rivaled in a space film - even by the newer Star Wars films. There’s just something that forms in the story that appeals to the audience and has affected our culture as much as the discovery of fire.
The movies have changed over the years, and I don’t just mean the “Special Edition” changes. While the film and special effects hold up fine over the years, the story itself has changed with the creation of each additional film. It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable as Leia plants a big kiss on Luke in The Empire Strikes Back after you learn the two are siblings in Return of the Jedi. With the more recent films, it’s easy to remember Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin the first time Vader hastily responds to someone mocking his “sorcerous ways” by choking them, or realize that Vader stops Boba Fett from opening fire on Chewbacca, who is carrying C-3PO - Anakin’s old droid. Even though the more recent films have drawn fire for being lesser films than the original pictures, it’s easy to see where they’ve developed on the original films and changed them just as much as Lucas’s CGI enhanced Special Effects. Whether the viewer likes those changes, or even agrees with them is entirely a personal matter.
The Star Wars Trilogy still remain some of my favorite films. I can go years without watching them, but instantly re-connect with them the next time I see them. Despite knowing the movies almost word for word, shot for shot, and note for note (of John Williams’ awesome score) I never tire of these films. I hope I never will.
The release of the original trilogy on DVD is both a blessing and a curse for Star Wars fans everywhere.
The blessing is that, thanks to the DVD format, these movies have never looked or sounded better in a home theater. The picture is crystal clear, the colors vibrant, and everything just looks outstanding. After years of watching the movies on old, scratched up VHS tapes, watching the opening crawl and the star destroyer chasing the rebel blockade runner on DVD was like seeing the images for the first time again. The sound is fantastic, remastered for this release, it utilizes every aspect of 5.1 sound for a truly immersive experience.
The dark side is, of course, the films have been changed. These are not the original classic films, or even the 1997 “Special Editions” (although most of the changes from that version remain). In this version Greedo still fires first, although the timing is a little closer now, the emperor is always Ian McDiarmid, replacing the “old woman” holographic image in Empire, and Hayden Christensen appears as Anakin in the movie’s final shots. Whether any of these changes were needed is open to debate, but George Lucas feels they bring the films in line with what he originally imagined. For fans who are upset by this, beware! Lucas says Star Wars is now 70-80% of what he originally wanted, meaning more changes are probably just around the corner.
Each film has a commentary track made up of George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, sound designer Ben Burtt, and visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren. For The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner adds in his two cents as well. The big problem with this commentary is that although it’s advertised as being multiple people, it’s really not. It’s obvious that a commentary track was recorded by each person separately, and then edited together to make a final commentary track for the movie. The problem with this is there’s no interaction, it’s just single dry comments by each person, and with editing you lose the spontaneity of some remarks that make other commentary tracks fun. It doesn’t feel like you’re sitting there watching the movie with these people, you’re just getting a comment here or there by a voice, with their name appearing on screen to let you know who’s talking. One the other hand, that could be a good thing. Anybody who’s ever seen Carrie Fisher appear on “Dinner for Five” should know she has a tendency to dominate conversation, and George can drone on for hours. At least this way more people then just George and Carrie get their words in. The comments are interesting for the most part, but I feel a bit robbed not getting a whole track of comments just by Burtt or Muren who have a “in the trenches” perspective of making these films. Kershner gets the award for most useless commentary, as most of his insights consist of explaining what’s going on up on the screen, or spelling out gags for the audience.
Those commentary tracks are all that you get on each individual movie’s disc. Sure, there are trailers and pictures of posters for each movie, but they’re located on the “Bonus Materials” disc. Personally I think putting each movie’s material with each movie would have been a better way to sort everything out, but then, what do I know?
That fourth “Bonus Materials” disc is typically what would make this set rock, but quite frankly it’s hard to put anything up against the Star Wars movies themselves. Fortunately, the fourth disc lives up to the films, making this an excellent set.
At the heart of the disc is “The Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy” documentary, which there’s a good chance you’ve seen on A&E by now, and if you’ve seen the documentary on TV, what’s the point of watching it on this set? Fear not, young padawan. The documentary on A&E is a truncated version of this documentary. The full length “Empire of Dreams” clocks in at 150 minutes, over twice the length of the hourlong version shown on A&E. This documentary is the end-all be-all of behind the scenes material for the original trilogy. Using interviews with the cast, crew, producers, and even Lucas’s peers, along with footage filming behind the scenes of the classic films, “The Empire of Dreams” details the process and drama of making these movies. There’s a good chance the documentary will unveil something even the most detailed Star Wars fan doesn’t know, and it does its best to put truth to all the rumors about the Star Wars movies. This is an absolutely fantastic documentary!
“The Empire of Dreams” alone is enough to put other DVD sets to shame, but the disc holds more then that. Three other featurettes detail the characters of Star Wars, the development and creation of the lightsaber, and the influence Star Wars has had on other filmmakers. Watching the third one you realize just what it means to say Star Wars has affected your life. It’s not only affected what I expect from films, but after watching James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, Ridley Scott, and John Singleton all talk about how it affected them, I realize it’s effect stretches out to how other movies I love were created.
As I noted, trailers and posters as well as a photo gallery for all three films are included on this fourth disc, as well as an X-Box demo for “Star Wars: Battlefronts”, which makes this a pretty well rounded bonus disc. It even includes a peek behind the scenes of the upcoming Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. So why doesn’t it get a perfect rating from me? Because sometimes it’s not what is included, but what’s not included that should be.
We all know there are additional deleted scenes from each movie. Lucas even released some of them a few years ago on the behind the scenes CD-ROMs that were released in celebration of the “Special Editions”. So why can I watch a grainy copy of Luke and Biggs on my computer, but not on this DVD? We even get pictures in the photo galleries from “scenes that were eventually cut”, so why not get to watch that footage? What about vintage behind the scenes specials? I have some of those old specials on the making of the movies on video tape, why not add those in here as well?
And of course there’s the inevitable - Where are the Classic Star Wars movies? If Lucas wanted to do an all-encompassing DVD set, we’d get options to watch several different versions of the films - the classic version, the “special edition”, and the “current edition” (for lack of a better word - I’m certainly not going to call these movies the “final version” because there is no doubt in my mind that Lucas will alter them again). What this DVD set shows us is that Lucas knows how to utilize the DVD format, but it also tells me that Lucas has found a new format to milk, and that we’ll get variations on the classic films on DVD much like we did on VHS. Every couple of years I expect George Lucas & co. to offer a new version of the DVD, with new extras. The good news is that this set is complete enough, and makes the films look good enough, that I won’t feel the need to hand over any more of my cash for a long time.
For me, it’s fantastic to have copies of these movies in my DVD library, and the clarity and beauty of the films is enough to get past the changes that have been made. These movies are a must have for any respectable movie fan, but then, I probably don’t need to tell you that. If you’re holding out on buying these because of the changes, I’d urge you to reconsider... either that, or go find a friend who did shell out for the set, and hope he has a good home theater set up.